22 November 2009

Mum's Last Love


This story starts late summer of 1998. Mum and I had taken some time away from the house, loaded the truck and dogs and headed for the high country. We chose the KOA campground in Williams, AZ for our few days stay.

They had horseback riding. You could choose an hour ride, a two hour ride or all day. No matter what you had to go with a guide/wrangler. Being that I've always been in love with horses, I couldn't resist. It had been a really long time since I'd been riding too. I tried to talk Mum into going along, but she opted out, she wanted to stay with our dogs and just enjoy the day.

Later on I walked down to visit with the gal who was doing the cooking and taking care of the horses. One thing led to another and I discovered she lived at the stable the owner had running full time in Phoenix. She told me to visit next time I was in town and gave me directions to the facility.

After I left on my next trip, Mum decided to check the place out. It never looked like much, but was always busy, people coming and going, riding, caring for horses boarded there and from the little saloon next door.

Mum made friends with the wranglers and was introduced to the owners, Barbara and David. I was gone a month that time and by the time I got back into town Mum had started volunteering at the stables. She took reservations, answered the phones, and was learning the different horses so when a group came to ride she could tell the wranglers which horses to pull out and load. I could see she was enjoying every minute she spent there, and I was happy she had found something to do that took her out of the house more often.

Mum introduced me to Oreo. She'd taken a liking to him. He was this all mixed and jumbled black and white paint horse with friendly brown eyes and a big white blaze down his face. He had this bored look about him that instantly made me think of "Eeyore", Pooh's friend. Most days he stood in the dude line waiting for someone to pull him out of the line to go to work.

Mum explained they didn't use him much because he had an attitude and wasn't likely to follow the leader especially if who ever was on him didn't know what to do when he decided to stop. I wondered if maybe he wasn't just bored, he looked so sad most of the time. I later found out, the behavior wasn't from being in the dude line every day, but from poor feed.

I asked to ride him. He and I, we got along fine on the ride except he tripped a few times. I had to wonder if perhaps he needed new shoes or trimming or something. The next time I went to the stables Mum stayed home and I learned more about Oreo.

As the story goes, the owner bought him as a yearling colt off the reservation with intentions of making him his 'Mountain Man' horse. He moved as if he was a walking horse breed. I later learned they suspected he was 1/2 Tennessee Walking Horse and 1/2 mustang. He had the gait when he wanted to wanted to walk it, but because he was in the dude line, he rarely got a chance to strut his stuff. The kind of riding at the stables is mainly done 'nose to tail', a follow the leader thing.

Oreo was stout, well built and David was a big man, over 220 pounds and over six feet tall, but apparently David didn't think Oreo had the stamina, so he was never used. Apparently after they gelded him, he didn't suit the owner's needs which was to carry David on the 130 mile Mountain Man Ride from Williams, AZ down to New River, AZ. It's a strenuous ride, 130 miles over rough terrain, across mountains, and through the woods.

Oreo developed other issues, too, while he was growing up. David wasn't noted for feeding the best feed to his animals and Oreo was one of those horse that had a really sensitive stomach. It seemed he was prone to colic every time David bought a different grade of alfalfa. The vet had been out for him twice in the few months we'd known the people at the stables. I was witness to one such occurrence. I spent an afternoon walking Oreo. We walked for hours before the wranglers were able to put him up for the day.

When Mum and I went by the next day, Oreo was tied at the hitch rail in front of the office where Mum sat to sign in riders. We found out that he'd gone down again the night before and they were waiting for the vet. The long and short of it after the vet came out was that Oreo wasn't likely to recover without surgery.

I left on another run the next morning, so I wasn't able to check on Oreo before I left, but when Mum and I talked that evening she was ecstatic. "Guess what I did, today?" She prompted me. My response was "I dunno, what'd you do today?" "I bought Oreo." She said. Now it was my turn to be surprised. I'd have never guessed she'd have done that, but apparently, Barbara made her a decent deal. Mum put down a down payment and Oreo was moved into a private stall to recover from the visit from the vet again that day.

I wouldn't learn until after Mum's death that Barbara had threatened to run Oreo through the sale. The truth of the matter was, Barb and Dave were in the business of selling horseback rides and selling horses. If they had a horse they couldn't use in the dude line or they couldn't sell, it was of no use to them. The animal went to the sale for whatever it would bring.

Mum saved Oreo from that fate. I have to say, Oreo never had colic again after Mum bought him. Weeks later, Oreo would recover sufficiently to be returned to the dude pen with the other geldings. Mum made daily trips to the stables and the wranglers got him out for her so she could brush him and spoil him with treats. There was a new farrier in the neighborhood and Mum called him to have a look at shoeing Oreo. JD, the farrier, would become close friends with us over the next months as he worked to get Oreo's hoofs back into shape and would continue to shoe our horses for a long time to come.

I came in after a particularly long run. I think, I'd been gone six weeks. In that six weeks, Oreo's eyes were bright and alert. He had a new halter and lead rope, he had brushes and combs. He appeared genuinely happy to see Mum when we were there. The days she volunteered, he was brought out and tied to the hitch rail where he could be close to her. It was easy to see the bond they had formed. I wondered if she would ever ride him.

It was getting close to Christmas and Mum didn't have a saddle yet. A buddy of mine suggested we split the cost of a saddle for her. He knew what she wanted. They'd been to the tack store enough times together. I agreed. I bought the pad for her too. Christmas day we took Oreo's new saddle and pad up and tacked him out. He looked like a king and thought he was pretty special. It was one of the few times I witnessed Mum get on Oreo for a ride.

She'd bought herself some riding lessons and was making progress getting her confidence back. "Let's face it," she'd said, "It's been 50 years." That Christmas Day was a special day for both of them.

Mum started letting Barb's daughter ride Oreo when she was around, and a couple of wrangler's had started to work him for her. She wanted him ready when I got back in the next time. I'd made her promise she would ride Oreo to the T-Bone Steakhouse for dinner.

I was seriously thinking of coming off the road and hadn't yet broached the subject with Mum, it was something we had to sit down and talk about. dinner at the T-Bone would give us that opportunity. I wanted to do some regional and local running and see if we could sustain things around the house, and I wanted to be home more often. I did come off the road in April that year. It was 1999.

We spent most of our time at the stables. I was volunteering for Dave and Barb now, too, so I had been able to ride most of the horses in the dude line and some of the horses used for 'wrangling'. Now, I rode most of the time as a wrangler and I'd found a horse I wanted to buy. A four year old Missouri Fox Trotter filly named Sally.

We took off and spent the 4th of July weekend in Forest Lakes, AZ with some family. When we got back, I had decided it was time to make a bid for the filly, but I was too late, she'd been sold the day before to a cowboy who ironically lived in Heber, AZ. I kept riding Oreo while I looked for another mount of my own.

In September I'd taken a run out of state for a couple of days. Mum had gone to the feed store and picked up two large bags of feed for Oreo. I don't know what she was thinking by trying to get the bags out of the truck by herself, but in any event she wrenched her back, or thought she did. When it was all said and done, the doctor said she'd pulled the muscles around her spine and cracked a vertebrae. He didn't want her riding for atleast a few months, and he definitely didn't want her lifting anything! She couldn't sit comfortably so she wasn't going to the stables often, and when she did she didn't stay long.

Three months later, she was gone and Oreo was lost. After her death, it dawned on me, she was saying her goodbyes to Oreo, even though her death came as a complete shock to me and everyone else we had made friends with the last two years.

Oreo tolerated me, I think he loved me in his own way, but our bond wasn't the same as it had been with Mum. Each time I went to visit, he would head right for the booth where Mum used to sit. On more than one occasion, he went through the door looking for her. His ears would twitch and his nostrils would flare, but he never found her. His attitude which had improved over the last two years, reverted to; 'Oh, bother, do I have to?'; that Eeyore thing was back.

A month after Mum's death, I took Oreo to the annual Wickenburg ride. A fifteen mile ride from Morristown, AZ across the desert and through the hills to Wickenburg, AZ. I'd taken time off from work. The day before we left, I spent the time to give him a bath and clean him up. He looked pretty, all blue and red roan colors, mixed up and he definitely looked like Oreo cookies in milk.

On the way out to our camp area, Oreo fell in the trailer and Barb had to stop to get him on his feet again. She was terrified he'd gotten hurt. No worse for the wear when we unloaded him in Morristown, his legs and belly were covered in rich green manure. I had water with me, so while the others saddled up to take the horses to the water spot, I cleaned Oreo up again. As the other riders rode out, Oreo started to call. He called long after the other horse had gotten out of site. It was the first time I'd ever heard him call. Oreo and I would have a lot of firsts. This was just the beginning.

More later.....


The pix at the beginning of this post was drawn by my niece, Marisa, when she was in Phoenix after her grandmother's death. She met Oreo.